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School, learning and intellectual humility

Holistic Think Tank
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What is the purpose of the school?” – this question seems to have an obvious answer. The objective of the school is to teach. It is to convey knowledge that the student needs. Nothing easier. And nothing farther from the truth. Because the role of the school, apart from teaching, is to teach how to learn. This skill is not necessarily to be developed at the university and it can be sparked a lot earlier, namely at school, even the primary one. Of course, this needs to be done skillfully. One needs to distinguish between passing the knowledge through second person’s testimonies about facts and learning: these two are not the same.

The school as we know it is a kind of invention and testimony of the times in which it was established. The model of education called “Prussian” matched specific needs that were manifested by the centralizing and nationalizing countries. There was a need for soldiers, clerks and physical workers. The school provided them, and it keeps doing so. It keeps doing so, even despite the fact that the times when it was expected are long gone. The Prussian-model school could be compared to the Pompeian guard that died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, as someone had forgotten to call him off the duty.

Why was that and why the change? The old educational model was adjusted to the quantum of knowdlege that was not only managed by the humanity, but it was also supposed to be managed by students. And this is why the Prussian school put pressure on memory techniques and learning long pieces of text by heart. Today, learning by heart in the universal mode imposed on all students, with the use of the very same manual, is becoming less and less effective. First and foremost, the amount of knowledge to acquire has increased; also, we use it differently; another argument is that we can store it in new ways, and in the 19th century there was no internet.

The change in the circumstances should also entail an educational change of guard and replace the old paradigm with a new one. Some philosophers inform us about how to conduct this great operation.

Philosophy – not that useless

The look that philosophy receives from our contemporary perspective is not excessively flirty. Pop-science approach that dominates in the public space somehow pushes philosophy to the ground of undecidable speculations deprived of greater sense. It is important, because this is the perspective on the reality that surrounds us: science functions in it not as a set of specific practices aimed at learning the truth, but as a kind of an oracle that forms only rational judgements. The today’s society that associates science mostly with what is countable and leads to practical solutions has issues with a discipline which can play and indeed plays the role of a superior layer towards science, something more abstract. Philosophy. Today, philosophy is able to derive from the effects of work of other exact sciences, such as biology, chemistry, physics, and then offer a synthesis of what stems from them. Such syntheses may, in turn, be used by scientists, as they will form new conclusions related to their research disciplines.

This is also what happens with philosophy which looks at pedogigcs or, more widely, the school. If it is philosophers that have an interesting opinion on what the school ought to teach and how it could teach how to learn, why shouldn’t we give them a chance?

Testimonies vs. learning

Sebastian Rödl, professor of practical philosophy from Leipzig, says that there are two ways to acquire knowledge. One of them is to get to know another’s testimonies. This could be, for instance, reading a description of an event drafted by a chronicler. This could also be listening to a witness of an event. Another way is to learn something. The difference between the two, though it seems to be difficult to grasp, is non-trivial: if we learn something through testimonies, we do not need to know any rules which form grounds for the world. It suffices to learn second person’s stance and, in a way, to believe in second person’s words. “I know something because someone has told me that.” Learning is something else. It is about discovering the reality in a way that we place facts in a wider dimension. We are able to acquire more fragments of this knowledge by ourselves. We know the ways to acquire them. We do not depend on who presents a testimony. “I know something because I know the rules of the reality.”

The Prussian-model school definitely prefers the transfer of knowledge through testimonies, be they either told by the teacher or written in a manual. This technique is not to be entirely condemned: it is useful and a teacher or a good book with second person’s views in the form of a manual may function as a road sign or a street light showing the direction for further exploration or the right moral attitude. The efficiency of such a model of the knowledge transfer seems, however, to be doubtful, in particular in the contemporary world. Nowadays, there is a number of testimonies and sources of knowledge and the art of learning something useful and, at the same time, truly sensible is more and more about filtering away the bad and erroneous testimonies offered by those who want to manipulate us.

Rödl points out to one more important dependency that arises from abandoning second person’s testimonies to the benefit of learning. Learning liberates. It allows for being independent from the one(s) that offer(s) testimonies.

Interdisciplinary subject

The skill of learning on your own becomes a skill superior to the knowledge which we can acquire thanks to it. On the basis of that, we can propose a whole subject which is an interdisciplinary exercise of combining the already known facts, finding new ones with the use of the learnt rules that stem from different exact sciences. Such a model of work, conducted, without any doubt, under the supervision of the teacher, is not only innovative, but it also matches the contemporary world.

Hence what the school should teach is a method or methods thanks to which the student will be able to both learn on their own and teach others. This is a life-long skill that allows for acting in different dimensions and for combining different facts. Such a skill is more difficult to forget. Second person’s testimonies are far easier to be evaporate also because we just receive them and we do not need to put any effort in acquiring them. In turn, a teacher who teaches how to learn, will give one room for growth.

Virtue of humility

Such a presentation of education may be refreshing, as it offers freedom. This should, however, be accompanied by responsibility, the companion of its liberated sister. A personification of responsibility is intellectual humility. The awareness of depending on yourself to a bigger extent, and not on second person’s testimonies, as well as the possibility of discovering the reality rather autonomously are of course necessary and stimulating, but they also trigger some negative effects. One of them could be pride, a conviction that everything is not only within your reach, but also easily accessible. Teaching intellectual humility to those who would learn how to learn on their own would be a perfect complement to the renewed school. And this is put forward by Duncan Pritchard, philosopher from the University of California. He describes intellectual humility as the ability to doubt your own knowledge without underrating it. Knowledge gives you confidence, including in many situations in your life. If you acquire it on your own, it can be a reason to be proud of. Humility, however, is to restore the awareness of the scale. By teaching that not everything we know, we know for sure, and that much is still ahead of us.

Of course, general guidelines offered by philosophers need to be applied in a way. They are rather answers to the question what and not how to learn: the latter should be tackled by specialists in a given discipline or disciplines, as education science is about interdisciplinary attempts to find answers that would satisfy us. You need to have a starting point, however. And seemingly abstract and in fact very practical guidelines about the school as a place where we teach how to learn may prove very useful, according to the rule that there is nothing as practical as a good theory.

Author: Marcin Chmielowski

Question from the reader: What makes it possible for students to acquire knowledge on their own?

Thesis for the reader: The school should teach how to learn on your own. This, however, requires intellectual humility, and the school should prepare for that as well

Abstract: The article touches upon the manner in which knowledge is conveyed at school. This combines imitative and testimony-based school work with the Prussian educational model. It also offers a different approach based on teaching how to learn on your own. A crucial element of such a change in the education process would also be teaching intellectual humility. The text, as a one based on guidelines from philosophers and not scientists is general, hence it places the philosophical knowledge in a relationship with the scientific knowledge, as well as refers to the issue of further development of these guidelines. This should be the task of specialists in education and educational sciences.


  1. SEBASTIAN RODL, Teaching, Freedom and the Human Individual, Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 54, No. 2, 2020
  2. DUNCAN PRITCHARD, Educating for Intellectual Humility and Conviction, Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 54, No. 2, 2020
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